Bill Bruford: No Random Act

John Kelman By

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Another interesting direction with the new record is the reintroduction of older Bruford pieces, from Earthworks Mark I, and even as far back as from his '70s group, Bruford. "That was a request from Tim, Bruford explains. "He grew up with some of the Bruford/Holdsworth stuff and said, 'We've got to do some of that.' I said, 'Not really because the sound of it isn't going to work in this context,' but we did find two or three pieces that did sit well.

"Pat Mastelotto, from King Crimson, had a nice phrase, continues Bruford, "that musicians know where the bodies are buried. The music is so much a part of a musician that one can't look back at anything with any objectivity until at least ten years has passed. And it took an incoming Tim Garland to say, 'that lovely ballad with Annette Peacock, "Seems Like a Lifetime Ago, we could do that.' I went, 'My God , are you sure?' and he said 'Yeah, it'll sound great!' and sure enough it did. 'One of a Kind' was a bit of a reach, but we got away with it. And playing some older material is also nice for the crowd, because they are aware of my having a long career of which I am usually only doing the last ten minutes; they're grateful to hear something from a little further back.

Recording Live

Random Acts of Happiness , like the previous Footloose and Fancy Free , is a live recording, but rather than being a consolidation of existing material, this is an album of new compositions along with the new treatments of older pieces. Given that Earthworks does little to nothing in the way of editing, recording an album of new works live made perfect sense. "There's so little difference in live and studio recording these days, says Bruford. "The studio has, ever since this inception of Earthworks, been only the physical building in which the performance is made. We don't use it, in any sense, as another instrument as other musicians sometimes do. Obviously we are performance-based music; you do two or three takes and that's it, that's all. The drums are always untouched, and of course if there is a small slip or error then you can retouch it; but generally speaking what you play is what you get. So given that you're going to do that in two or three days in the studio, you might just as well add another date to the tour and record it live at the end of the tour. It also cuts costs somewhat; and anything you can do to cut costs is going to be a good thing on the whole, while maintaining the quality of course.

The new record sounds better than the last one, largely because it was recorded in what is fast becoming known as one of the best clubs for live recording in the United States, Yoshi's in Oakland, California. "Unfortunately Footloose and Fancy Free , which was OK, explains Bruford, "was recorded in a room with a very low ceiling, and it caused a bit of a problem, whereas Yoshi's is a much taller room; you get much more space in the microphones so you get a bigger sound; it's a much better sounding room overall.

Whether or not, like Keith Jarrett, Bruford will continue to record new albums exclusively in a live context is up in the air. "It's interesting, isn't it? says Bruford. "I hadn't thought of that, but it's absolutely interesting about Jarrett. But do I intend to do another one, I don't know really. But that's one of the great things about jazz, the only way it can compete is because of the speed and economy of the musicians in (a) sight reading, (b) rehearsing very quickly and (c) recording very quickly. So jazz can compete economically on those terms; it has those three big guns that it can bring to bear, unlike rock groups that have to sit rehearsing for days on end.

Enter Gwilym Simcock

The new album represents yet another turning point for Earthworks Mark II, as after its recording pianist Steve Hamilton departed, to be replaced by young Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock, first heard with the group Acoustic Triangle. "Gwil is definitely the hot new kid in town, Bruford explains. "His ability is really astonishing, he's one of those guys who plays much more maturely than you would expect at the age of twenty-three. I haven't gotten around to his writing yet, but he's a prodigiously gifted musician, a real pleasure to play with. We've only just started, having played five or six dates, and I've had to raise my game considerably. This is always the pleasure in running a band; there aren't too many pleasures in running a band, let me tell you, but in return for all the effort what you get is to invite guys into the band that you like and who will force you to rethink and up your game, pay attention, and get back on the case.

"Gwilym is challenging, continues Bruford, "because he phrases so across the bar line that you'd better have a very secure sense of where you are in the music. You're not allowed to get lost, and you don't want to get lost; but if you start listening too much to Gwil then you are transported. Of course I do listen to him though, he's great!

The Earthworks Sound

With all the personnel changes in the band, and only bassist Mark Hodgson remaining from the original Mark II line-up, the question is what defines the Earthworks sound, what gives it a brand? "Well, it's nothing overt, explains Bruford. "I think it stems from the compositions; they are what they are. They come in a slightly different way and to the average American they are rather idiosyncratic, they have odd twists and turns; considerably odd twists and turns which you'd be unlikely to find in the American mainstream of jazz composition. But I don't have hard and fast, black and white rules; I think a lot of this band leading business is down to who you invite into the thing, and if you've got Tim and I it's going to drift in a certain kind of direction. Now, I would shout and scream if it moved too far from some internalized picture of how I think things should go. Broadly it should be British, it should be exciting, it should be riveting as heck and everybody who leaves a show should say, 'Well, I didn't know I liked jazz,' or, 'If that's jazz I like it,' which is what they seem to say.

Economic Considerations

Further testing the definition of an Earthworks sound, Bruford and Garland traveled to the United States in '03 for a brief tour that, rather than including Hodgson and Hamilton, picked up two American musicians. Born out of issues including economic necessity and the current political climate, the result was hugely successful, featuring two New York players, pianist Henry Hey and bassist Mike Pope. "Like so many things in music, explains Bruford, "you're going to hear this word economy coming back into the conversation periodically. I grew up in a different world where we just assumed you'd fly drum sets around the world and you'd take your own group of musicians with you from Britain. As time passed we became more economical with flying drum kits about and now we're becoming a bit more economical with flying musicians about. It may not be necessary for me to fly a bassist all the way to the States or Spain or anywhere necessarily. And sometimes people like me have two or three different teams if possible. There's an argument that says you should have an American band, a Japanese band, a European band and an English band.

"It was an experiment in a way, continues Bruford, "to pick up two guys in New York—a great city, by the way, in which to pick up two musicians because they are so good and the standard is so high. Both Henry and Mike were just fantastic readers. As long as you prepare people enough then it's OK. They had good audio and good charts, but nevertheless to absorb the music, internalize it and then play off of it so quickly in just two or three dates is very quick indeed.

"And it was very fast, Bruford continues. "Like so many things these days there was a three hour rehearsal the day before and that was it. It's a great standard; all I can say is the young guys are getting to be like tennis players—they're getting better and better and quicker and quicker. Like Henry, we only had a short rehearsal with Gwilym, but it's the same thing; it's internalized very quickly. The only questions will be, 'Should we have this section twice as long as that one?' or, 'Should we have this section half as long?'; and one or two kind of logistical map reading kinds of questions. But the music will come together very, very quickly, and it's absolutely astonishing to me; well not exactly astonishing, but I'm thrilled; it says a huge amount about the future of jazz if it's in the hands of these young guys.

Changes in American policy are also making alternate plans a necessity. "It's getting harder by the minute, explains Bruford, " and it's getting more expensive by the minute. It costs $4,000 for me to bring a band into the States, just in visa costs alone. Then there's a certain amount of headache with the paperwork; a European musician has to state every country he's been to over the past ten years. Now, we're in and out of countries every two minutes, so this represents severe academic work. And whereas people used to say, 'Yeah, we're going to the States,' now it's a bit like, 'Oh, bloody hell.' And I'm a British guy who comes and goes all the time, but God knows what it's like if you're some middle eastern nose flautist, it would be very difficult.

"It's causing me to have Americans in the band, continues Bruford. "It is also causing me to spend much of this year out of the States. I live in Europe you know, it's got quite a good scene and it's around the corner. But I've always played in the States, for my whole life, and it seems very strange if I don't come over for a year or more, but I currently have no plans for gigs there. It's rough out there, what can I tell you.

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